Not the usual fanfare or blasting of paparazzi flashes, no red carpets or ball gowns that you'd expect at an event with celebrities like actress, filmmaker and currently academic Isabella Rossellini, and renowned fashion photographer, Patrice Casanova. It was just family, friends, artists, and other academic junkies, getting together on a Thursday, and discussing their favorite subjects: animal behavior, Heritage chickens and photography.
The reason for the gathering: a reception for the closing of the photo exhibition, Fowl Play: Isabella Rossellini's Heritage Breed Chickens, a collaboration between the two artists, which ended, September 10th. They were being shown at the Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Gallery at Hunter College in New York City during the summer.
In this show, Rossellini and Casanova shed a whole new light on the splendor and grace of these feathered friends.
The show grew out of Rossellini’s commitment as a conservation activist. In 2012, she purchased a parcel of land in the Brookhaven Hamlet in New York, with a plan to lease the farmland. Concerned with sustainability and animal welfare, Rossellini believes, “There is a role for a small farm like mine to help genetic diversity – and not only of vegetables.” The interest led Rossellini to agree to raise a flock of Heritage breed chickens for some friends.
Rossellini and Casanova began the project together, when the birds were just fledglings, newly delivered to Rossellini in tiny cardboard boxes. After the first set of pictures were snapped, Casanova returned every two weeks to photograph the fowl.
Although many only know Rossellini as actress, model and daughter of two film icons, she is an anomaly in the movie industry. At 66, she continues to be offered roles for TV and film, and also finds time, in between projects, to pursue a master’s degree. Presently a graduate student in Hunter College’s Animal Behavior and Conservation program, she gave a three part presentation at the closing event for Fowl Play.
Dressed in a tunic, reminiscent of the multicolored plumage of the Welsummer chicken, she gave a lecture and showed two films, one she created, titled: Wolf Becomes Dog, and the second, a screening of the 1952 short film, The Chicken’s, which was directed by her father, Roberto Rossellini and starred her mother, Ingrid Bergman. The films shared a similar playful tone, and in both cases, family and friends performed the various roles.
“I’m studying what I always wanted to study as a little girl,” said Rossellini. “They didn’t have these courses in Italy, when I was growing up. I’m lucky I found this program.”
At the age of 15, her father bought her a book about animal behavior titled, King Solomon’s Ring, by Konrad Lorenz. The book awakened the scientist in her.
As part of her conservancy, Rossellini has rented a few acres of her farm to cultivate crops. “They are mostly of heirloom varieties, for chefs who want flavorful ingredients that are not available in grocery stores,” said Rossellini. “You can only buy one breed of carrots or one breed of spinach in the markets.”
Referring to both the vegetables and chickens, she said, “It’s very important to raise endangered breeds that fell out of fashion. I chose Heritage chickens, because they live longer, and you might have diseases that kill all the broiler chickens, which are the ones you eat. Then, you have others that are resistant to a virus and you don’t have to start again.”
Long known as an environmental philanthropist, Rossellini doesn't just promote and donate; her actions speak as loud as her words. Dedicated to not only making the world a better place, but also helping the people who live in it, Rossellini also raises service dogs for the blind and disabled. Nothing goes to waste on the farm either; Rossellini created a coop for people who have bought a portion of the products on the farm. “Weekly we distribute a share of the honey, a share of the eggs and a share of the vegetables.”
The combination of her creative and academic sides inspired Rossellini’s return to the classroom. In 2008, she wrote, directed and starred in a series of video shorts for the Sundance Channel, titled Green Porno. The production, which stemmed from her work with Robert Redford and the Sundance Channel, is a compilation of eight short films dramatizing the sex life and mating habits of home and garden creatures, including bees, flies, praying mantis and others.
The series quickly found a following and received critical acclaim, including a Webby Award. The Internet platform was soon adapted into book form, and then the stage. Rossellini toured the one woman show from the Brooklyn Academy of Music to theaters throughout Europe and Australia.
For many years, Rossellini postponed her academic passion in deference to doing what was expected, but in the spring of 2013, at the age of 62, she took her first course at Hunter College in animal welfare, and began the journey of her lifelong aspiration. It’s refreshing and inspiring to see an actress of such prominence taking time out for herself, and following the dream that has been held in her heart since childhood.
The photographs by Patrice Casanova
The silver gelatin prints of the fowl are taken portrait style, and Patrice Casanova has captured the essence of each subject’s personality. From a fledgling’s grey, downy innocence and vulnerability against a soft pink background, to the full grown bird in all its regalia.
Shot at different times of day to catch the changing light, the images have a playful feeling. The setup and angles are reminiscent of Casanova’s fashion days. Taken at eye level, he seemingly has a knack to bring out the model in any subject, even Heritage breed chickens.
Sometimes, the head is tilted, or the bird gives a profile or lunges forward wings spread. At other moments, as with the Welsummer, known for its lighthearted friendly personality, and as the world famed Kellogg’s Cornflake mascot, the chicken stares directly into the camera. Still, the Crested Polish Watch, has a huge bouffant of feathers, and looks like its sporting a hat, similar to the ones worn by the British royals or women at the Kentucky Derby.
The soft focus of these images gives them a painterly appearance. The colors in the birds’ coats are multilayered and seem to be brushstrokes painstakingly painted with several layers of color. There is an anthropomorphic aspect to Casanova’s photographs, and it reminds us that humans are not the only intelligent life forms on earth.
Article by: Ellison Walcott
Follow Hunter College President, Jennifer J. Raab on her Huffington Post Blog at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/author/jennifer-j-raab